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Schools are failing our children
Home > Updated: 14-06-2002 4:08 pm

Education systems need reinventing. From the courses being taught to the schools they are taught in. Author and award winning journalist Reva Klein is the Chair of the International Consortium on School Disaffection, which aims at making education more humane, and more relevant.    
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What do you mean when you speak of disaffected students?
They’re the ones who slam the door on their education. Not just the kids who walk away from school, but also the those who drop out in their minds. The young people who feel alienated from the school environment or the curriculum for example and who switch off, who’re not engaged with the syllabus, not engaged socially. In the education system, they take one of four routes. Either they are pushed out – excluded – or they truant persistently, fail their exams or drop out before taking them. Whatever direction they go in , they face a precarious future, dogged by stigma, no qualifications and low self-esteem.

You’ve looked mainly at the situation in the United Kingdom, the USA . How serious is the problem in those countries?
In the UK, according to official figures, nearly 20 percent of 14 to 19 year-olds are out-of-school without any qualifications. They’re not in any sort of vocational training, and they’re not working. They’re referred to as a being at “status zero”. Unofficially, their numbers are probably much higher.

At the same time, and even though the government has committed itself to social inclusion, the number of pupils being shown the door has risen inexorably over the past decade. In 1990/91, 2,910 children were excluded from English schools; by 1996/97 the number had skyrocketed to 12,700, and 1,600 of them were primary students.

In the United States, an average 25 percent of 13 year olds fail to graduate from high school. But this figure hides big differences between states and cities. In New York City and Washington D.C’s public schools, the figure is a staggering 45 percent. This means that one child out of every four in the United States leaves school without that most basic of American necessities, a high school diploma.

Who are the young people dropping out?
There are no simple profiles, but there are a number of factors that keep cropping up.

The home and social environment and family circumstances are obviously critical. The US Educational Testing Service, for example, reports that around half of all families on welfare are headed by early school leavers.

Race and ethnicity can also be major hurdles. In the U.K. disproportionate numbers of African Caribbean children are doing badly – although they don’t necessarily drop-out of their education. Gypsy and Traveller children are particularly at risk of failing and dropping out, even though they, like African Caribbeans, start their schooling on a positive note.

In the US, although the situation for black children is still far from acceptable, it has dramatically improved over the last three decades. The latest figures show that about 13 percent of young black students drop out, as against 40 percent in the 1970s. On the other hand, the drop-out rate for young Latinos in the mid 1990s was around 30 percent making them the worst hit ethnic group for dropout figures.

Gender is another indicator for school disaffection and underachievement. In the United States, “special education” classes for underachieving and disruptive students ar-85 percent male.

Young people living in foster situations or in the care of a local authority are one of the highest risk groups. In the UK over a quarter of 14 to 16 year olds in care are either persistent truants or have been excluded from school, and between half and three quarters of those leaving a foster or care situation have no educational qualifications.

That’s not really surprising though. Kids in underprivileged situations have always faced these sorts of difficulties. What’s new?
First, although they probably make up the bulk of dropouts and disaffected students, young people in socially difficult situations are not the only ones that don’t make it. There are plenty of “mom and pop” kinds of kids who’re also dropping out, or are disaffected.

Perhaps what’s new though is our concern over the situation, and our understanding of the high cost of disaffection. As an example, almost 95 percent of boys in young offender institutions in the UK have either been excluded from school, persistently truanted or dropped out before reaching their 16th birthday (and every young offender costs at least £75,000 per year to keep in prison).Girls who become alienated from school run an increased risk of getting pregnant. Britain holds the worst records in western Europe for teenage pregnancies at 33 births for every thousand girls aged between 15 and 19: five times the rate of Holland.

There is now widespread acceptance of the fact that education is fundamental to a person’s development, their capacity to survive and lead a fulfilling life in our so-called knowledge societies – where knowledge is the key to a country’s economic and social development, but also the key to individual empowerment, to a decent job, home and lifestyle.

That we still have such a significant dropout problem in those countries that supposedly have the capacity to provide an education for all, means that whatwe are providing isn’t good enough. It means that schools are not in tune with what young people need and want today. It means that teachers are not well enough equipped with the understanding and skills to deal with the problems and difficulties of young people; that schools are not providing the right environment for children to develop as citizens.

What can be done to reconnect kids with education?
Clearly if the tide is to turn, so too must policies, attitudes, structures. The system must be more responsive to the various needs, backgrounds and abilities of all students while not compromising standards and expectations for the more able end of the spectrum. The response must be comprehensive in scope.

Concretely, that means designing education systems that are more flexible. It means making schools truly democratic – and that goes beyond the simple establishment of school councils. We should be striving for is real participation in the classroom. We need to open schools to the outside community and to parents. And we need to pay much more attention to individual children and have mechanisms in place to get them the expert help they need as early as possible. Kids on the skids need monitoring by properly trained people. It’s been well established that a “significant” adult in a child’s life can turn them around.

Are there any examples that could show us the way forward?
There are plenty. In Europe, Denmark’s education system takes top marks. The system is based on mutual respect between teacher and pupil and a culture of dialogue: the teachers don’t just stand up in front of the class – children work with them and with each other in a collaborative effort. There’s no grading system, no high stakes testing. It’s a system that also offers strong vocational programmes to students. Denmark’s drop out rate is only 4.3 percent.

While the US is home to some of the worst results and practices, it is also where some of the best work is being done. In New Haven (Connecticut), a compulsory programme of social and emotional learning for children from six to 18 – teaching skills required for decision-making, peer relationships, problem-solving, resisting drugs and alcohol, stress management, self-control, violence prevention and sexuality – has reaped amazing results. Between 1992 and 1996, the numbers of sixth graders having to repeat a grade was cut by ten percent. The number of fourth graders achieving good or excellent results in tests of their verbal and non-verbal skills jumped from 41 to 72 percent. Dropout rates, suspensions and exclusions all fell, the number of kids carrying guns to school dropped by half.

In Australia, multi-agency approaches are turning up good results. Schools are linking up with public and private welfare organizations and community groups to bring kids in difficulty the support services they and their parents may need, and opening up different learning opportunities.

Cooperation, collaboration and coherence are also the pillars of a model being used successfully in Holland, which aims to help young people in difficulty to overcome some of the disadvantages –economic and cultural for example, that may hold them back. The main idea is that the fewer the differences between the ethos and experiences at school, at home and in the community, the greater the progress of children’s development. And because of the enormous resources available to schools, it is there where the ultimate responsibility for creating educational opportunities lies.

Aren’tthese rather piecemeal solutions for a problem that is becoming more complex and truly international?
There are so many pedagogically and psychologically sound approaches being used in diverse corners of the world to engage young people in their learning that not a single spoke of yet another wheel needs to be invented. It’s all there for the taking, if we know where to look for them and how to adapt them to our particular needs.

In an ideal world, for example, the education system in Taiwan, say, will admit that though it produces top marks internationally in math and science, the creative expression of the children there has been sacrificed in the process to their detriment. So it will look to, for example, a school in Tennessee (USA) using the Leonard Bernstein Center model, in which the curriculum is delivered through the arts, and borrow some of the methodologies from there. At the same time, pre-school educators in Britain will reassess the wisdom of introducing literacy and numeracy to four year olds and look at Hungary, where children attain higher test scores although they start reading and number work two to three years later. And in the same hour, a secondary school in Caracas (Venezuela) with a heavy caseload of truancy, underachievement and disruptive behaviour will look to the multi-agency support systems practiced in Western Australia. There, no child is left to suffer or drift off, because assessment of all students ensures that a myriad of problems are identified and dealt with in different, student-friendly ways.

Children of the future, like those of the present, will need to communicate well, to interact at sophisticated levels with others, to solve problems creatively and to be flexible and imaginative in their thinking. For that to happen, schools need to see them and treat them as individuals, helping them to deal with the baggage that they’re bringing in with them everyday and stimulating them so that they will want to learn. For unless school learning is seen as part of a continuum in the context of each child’s life, it will remain stuck in the 19th century, where it remained for most of the 20th.

Photo: Reva Klein: fighting for the status zero group
© UNESCO/Sue Williams

Reva Klein
She was born in the USA but has lived in London for most of her Life. As a journalist, she has worked on a range of national dailies and magazines, and has a regular column in the Times Educational Supplement. She is also a part-time lecturer in journalism at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. She has twice won the `Race in the Media Award`, which is organized by the Campaign for Racial Equality.
She is the author of three books: Defying Disaffection: how schools are winning the hearts and minds of reluctant learners; Citizens by Right: citizenship education in primary schools and the forthcoming We Want Our Say: children as active partners in their education.


The International Consortium on School Disaffection, was created last October under the auspices of the National Dropout Prevention Centre based in Clemson, South Carolina (USA). Reva Klein is the chair.
The consortium is a multi-disciplinary group of academics, psychologists, researchers and practitioners working in the area of disaffection from the US, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Their rationale is to discuss our common concerns and challenges and to explore strategies. While they represent a diverse range of education systems and philosophies working within equally diverse political systems and economies, they recognize that school disaffection is a phenomenon that transcends these differences and unites them.
They don’t function solely as a talking shop, although annual meetings and online communications allow for plenty oflively and informative discussion. The organization also wants to foster possibilities for educationalists to visit each other’s countries to observe different ways of tackling familiar problems and then feed back and possibly adapt those strategies to meet their schools’ needs.
At the forthcoming national conference in San Diego in September, the Consortium will announce the launch of the International Journal on School Disaffection, the first journal of its kind to be published anywhere.
Email: ndpc@clemson.edu
www.dropoutprevention.org
Author(s) Sue Williams


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